This is a guest blog by Jack Gorsline, a Strategies for Children summer 2023 intern who is studying political science and journalism at Bunker Hill Community College and Northeastern University.

Sarah Muncey is a disruptor.

She’s a doer, a fixer, an innovator, and she’s a veteran teacher and school administrator.

But most importantly, she works at Neighborhood Villages and Muncey is, as she puts it, an “operations person.”

How does a passionate educator become an operations specialist?

From the ground up.

Muncey knows the public education system far better than most. She’s lived it, she’s learned it, and she’s served it: as a K-12 public schooler, as a student at Dartmouth College and at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, as a Teach for America alum, and as previously noted, as both a teacher and administrator.

In fact, it is Muncey’s robust experience that makes the story and successes of Neighborhood Villages even more intriguing and inspiring.

Founded in 2017, Neighborhood Villages (NV) is a Boston-based nonprofit focused on systems-changes in early education and care. While progressive education curriculums, strategies, and instructional methods are great, a lot of innovative ideas fail because their implementation process is flawed. That’s where the operations people at Neighborhood Villages come in. “The Neighborhood” as Muncey calls it, is a collective of five early learning centers in the Boston area that are tied together by NV’s centralized leadership and that serve as a proving ground for the implementation of alternative, progressive programs in early childhood spaces. Some of these attempts at innovation succeed. Others fail. The goal is to identify the successful programming that can be scaled statewide.

The Neighborhood Villages team does just that. Once a scalable solution to a given problem is identified, they expand the concept as broadly as possible, often with partners like the state’s Department of Early Education and Care, so that young children across the commonwealth can benefit from these innovations.

Think back to the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, to the fears that students, families, and educators alike had about the potential consequences of in-person school instruction. There was mask-wearing for children of various age groups and the widespread lack of Covid testing for individuals and organizations. In the midst of these challenges, Neighborhood Villages, which is embedded in working class communities of Boston, recognized the need to get kids back to school and their families back to work.

So, it’s no surprise that Muncey and her team were at the forefront of creating effective mass-testing protocols and procedures. During 2020’s first wave of COVID lockdowns, the Neighborhood Villages team also saw the emotional and mental toll that isolation was having on children and adults and decided to act: consulting with renowned epidemiologists and former International Monetary Fund chief economist Gita Ginopath to bring pool testing to schools across the state.

Now that the pandemic has receded, children are presenting with greater challenges, particularly in their social-emotional development. In the wake of humanity’s “return to normal” leading researchers at Columbia University concluded that children born between March and December 2020 “had significantly lower scores on gross motor, fine motor, and personal-social subdomains compared with a historical cohort of infants born before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

No one can say for certain what the long-term effects of this widespread decline in early childhood cognitive development will be, but as you would expect, Muncey and the Neighborhood Villages team are responding to these needs with a unique, wrap-around suite of mental health supports for both young children and their teachers.

In August, Muncey was kind enough to give me a tour of The Epiphany School in Dorchester so I could see first-hand the partnerships that NV has established with the school. Upon arrival, I was given a brief tour of Epiphany’s Early Learning Center. I had the opportunity to speak with a few staff members, and I sat with Muncey for an inspiring half-hour interview.

While the facilities are impeccable and the curriculum is exceptional, what I came away most impressed by was NV’s holistic approach to community relations, fostering a support system of family navigators and live-in apprentice educators who provide their students and their families with the full-threaded administrative support needed to navigate the complex public resources available to them.

“People call us… speaking Portuguese and saying, my boss says I need to take a class,” said Muncey, “our professional pathways team has a contract with the state for this and so we help find you your class.”

It is great to see such innovation and supports for educators. As former Strategies intern Nicole Simonson found in 2021, there are many early childhood mental health resources in Massachusetts, but there is a consistent lack of clinical workforce with the specialized skills that young children, educators, and families need. NV is helping fill this gap in their workforce development programs.

One of the many frustrations about the state of early education and care in the United States that Muncey and I share is that many solution-seekers get caught up in the minutiae, arguing over popularized talking points rather than putting policy to pavement. Throughout my time as a summer intern for Strategies, I have listened and spoken to some extraordinary educators, advocates, and policy experts alike, and as summer has come to a close, I can say with total confidence that the solutions that we seek are out there.

They are proven, financially feasible, and scalable, but foundational progress cannot be achieved within the confines of a school’s hallways. In a political era defined by polarity, expanding public access to early child care programming and support systems is an exception; it’s a wildly popular idea that would benefit public and private interests alike. Ultimately, I believe that an operations-centric approach to bipartisan public discourse is the under-trodden avenue to achieving equitable legislative reform that empowers communities from the ground-up.

Here’s to finding the middle-ground we seek.